Autumn has arrived in St Andrews, marking the beginning of the 'spooky season'. This is the perfect moment for gathering ideas for Halloween group costumes, trying some new pumpkin-based recipes and why not, locking yourself into an infested manor to solve a murder. Or at least, you can do it through A Haunting in Venice, Kenneth Branagh's new psychological thriller, loosely inspired by Agatha Christie's book Hallowe'en Party (1969). The film follows the timeline of its predecessors, Murder on The Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022), all directed by Branagh, who also stars as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The plot is as simple as it is unsettling: Poirot, tired of the misery that seems to follow him wherever he goes, retires to private life in post-war Venice. But when the ambitious writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) offers him to attend a Halloween party in an ancient palace, cursed, as legend says, by the spirits of the children who died there during the Black Plague period, he cannot refuse. This new adventure aims to expose Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium who claims to be able to get in touch with the daughter’s spirit of the opera singer who now owns the palace. This time, however, Poirot will not only have to solve a mystery but face his worst enemy: himself.
The film deftly combines thriller and horror, thanks to gothic, claustrophobic atmospheres and a constant feeling of anxiety, without needing gory scenes or jumpscares to terrify. Branagh masters the suspense elements typical of directors such as Hitchcock or Jack Clayton (The Innocents, 1961), such as playing with the camera through asymmetrical framings and representing supernatural elements that actually come much more from within the characters than from the outside. Venice seems almost a ghost city, as dark and silent as death, while the palace is portrayed as a living entity, which traps the characters in a spiral of horrors. It is right in this palace that not only the crimes will take place, but above all Poirot's inner journey of confronting his demons.
A peculiarity of Branagh is in fact how he always executes a psychological excavation in characters that, in the source material, tend to appear quite static and shallow. A well-known example of it can be found in his live-action Cinderella (2015)—in my opinion, the only truly successful live-action in the Disney universe—where the characters were enriched with inner conflicts and complex motivations for their actions. Branagh performs the same operation with the character of Hercule Poirot, who is no longer just the eccentric and brilliant detective we are used to reading of in Agatha Christie’s books, but a man tired of life, who finds himself succumbing to what could be defined as silent depression.
His encounter with the supernatural takes place at precisely this low point, triggering an unexpected journey within himself. The ghosts that haunt the palace, real and imaginary, are indeed an important metaphor that is the film’s interpretive key. In fact, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, the ghost represents the different levels on which man can live his existence, evoking inner realities and exposing a profound lack of security. In this film, the always rational Poirot must come to terms with an unconscious that he has for years tried to stifle, confronting its most deceptive parts. More than the famous detective, in this film Poirot is a wounded man who shows how repressing and ignoring trauma is a failing coping mechanism, and how it is impossible to achieve peace without the courage to look inside yourself. It is precisely through the recognition and acceptance of his own ghosts that the resolution of the case occurs, which is not simply the discovery of the murderer, but of a newfound desire for life and adventure.
Last but not least, I want to make a mention of honour for the portrayal of the Italian characters. As an Italian myself, I cannot help but notice how Hollywood often represents us in a caricatured manner. But in this case, Italian actors appreciated both in Italy and abroad were chosen, such as Riccardo Scamarcio, who portrays the ex-police officer Vitale Portfoglio and acts without stereotyped mannerisms.
Overall, I consider this film the best Agatha Christie cinematic adaptation that has come out so far. It knows how to combine entertainment with introspection, leading the viewer to investigate their own ghosts and to reflect on the necessity of dealing with losses and sorrows. From a director as romantic and deep as Branagh, I expected nothing less.
Illustration by Mya Shah